Ordination of women as Catholic deacons gains support of U.S. canon law group History and theology allow move, society says


An influential group of experts in Roman Catholic church law has concluded that ordaining women as deacons in the church would be in keeping with Catholic theology and past practice. The group, the Canon Law Society of America, gave a cautious endorsement of such a step as "desirable" for the United States.

Catholic Church officials have periodically raised the question of ordaining women as deacons in an effort to re-examine church teaching on women and ordained ministry without running athwart Pope John Paul II's unequivocal opposition to women as priests.

The pope and the Vatican have refrained from ruling out ordination of women to the diaconate, even in major pronouncements against ordaining women to the priesthood.

The study was approved by the Canon Law Society at its annual meeting last month in Montreal. The society, an organization of priests and lay scholars who serve on church tribunals and advise individual bishops on church policies, concluded, "Women have been ordained permanent deacons in the past, and it would be possible for the church to determine to do so again."

The study said that a frequently cited biblical reference to "Phoebe, a deaconess" in Paul's Epistle to the Romans did not indicate a regular church office, which was yet to evolve. By the third century, however, "there clearly were women deacons," the study said, adding that a majority of scholars, although not all, believe that these deaconesses were ordained and considered clergy in a manner parallel to men.

Within Catholicism, ordination to serve as deacons is considered part of the same sacrament of Holy Orders as ordination to the priesthood. In much of the church's history in the West, ordination as a deacon was a preliminary to becoming a priest.

In the 1960s, the church restored the office of permanent deacon and opened it to married men.

The Canon Law Society study said that opening this permanent diaconate to women as well would require relatively few changes in church law, and need not be done on a churchwide basis.

The study noted that local cultural factors were always important in decisions to ordain women deacons in the early centuries, and that cultural changes in the role of women in the United States already had been cited by the nation's bishops as requiring new approaches.

Deacons are authorized in Catholic Church law to preach at liturgies, to administer baptism and communion, officiate at marriages, conduct funeral services and burials and other rites, with the major exception of celebrating the Mass.

Deacons also perform a variety of educational, charitable and administrative church jobs, which in many cases are already being carried out by women.

Ordination of these women as deacons, the study said, would clearly recognize the sacramental character of their service and their standing in the church. It also would make them eligible for certain church offices open only to clergy.

The society's study is being circulated among American Catholic bishops.

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